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Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #11 ©

Reclaiming a Doctrine of Salvation

 Last week Dr. Lisa Neslony, West District Superintendent in the Central Texas Conference, wrote in a perceptive email, “What if Christians sought the spiritually lost the way volunteers have been seeking people in Southeast Texas? And why don’t we? Maybe we don’t really believe people are threatened by a spiritual death that is as real as water rising all around you. It struck me Tuesday when I listened to the radio on my way west that some people had refused being ‘saved’ (the broadcaster’s word) on Monday but were begging to be saved Tuesday. I have to admit that sometimes I give up on people. But I am overwhelmed with the conviction that I should offer the saving grace of Jesus Christ to all I meet as many times as it takes so people can experience God’s salvation.”

In Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesley Way #10, I wrote on the concept of grace and noted carefully that an understanding of grace is ultimately tied to a doctrine of salvation. Thus at the heart of the Wesleyan Way is a rock solid conviction that the offer of salvation is for all! Ironically, the mainline Christian core has migrated from a battle over salvation for the elect only vs salvation as available to all (through not all are saved!), to a loose conviction that in some vague way everyone is saved. Often this theological fuzziness is confused even further by an understanding of salvation that is truncated into the simplistic (and false notion) of just getting into heaven.

In his great sermon “The Scriptural Way of Salvation” preaching on the text of Ephesians 2:8 (“Ye are saved through faith”), John Wesley famously noted: “The salvation which is here spoken of is not what is frequently understood by that word, the going to heaven, eternal happiness. . . . It is not something at a distance: it is a present thing, a blessing which, through the free mercy of God, ye are now in possession of. . . . So that the salvation which is here spoken of might be extended to the entire work of God, from the first dawning of grace in the soul till it is consummated in glory” (John Wesley, “The Scriptural Way to Salvation,” The Works of John Wesley, Volume 2, Sermons II, 34-70, Edited by Albert C. Outler, p. 156). So too, in Sermon I of Wesley’s collection of sermons (which formed a theological backbone of Methodism) Wesley connected salvation with grace and faith (again preaching on Ephesians 2:8) in a way that great clarity. “Grace is the source, faith the condition, of salvation” (John Wesley, “Salvation by Faith,” The Works of John Wesley, Volume 1, Sermons I, 1-33, Edited by Albert C. Outler, p. 118).

In his marvelous book Who Will Be Saved? (which I heartily recommend!) Bishop William Willimon draws the connection tight. “Although celebration of humanity is the dominant, governmentally sanctioned story, it is not the story to which Christians are accountable. It is the conventional North American story that, at every turn, is counter to the gospel. Thus we begin by noting that there are few more challenging words to be said by the church than salvation. Salvation implies that there is something from which we need to be saved, that we are not doing as well as we presume, that we do not have the whole world in our hands and that the hope for us is not of our devising. . . . To be sure, Scripture is concerned with our eternal fate. What has been obscured is Scripture’s stress on salvation as invitation to share in a particular God’s life here, now, so that we might do so forever. Salvation isn’t just a destination; it is our vocation. Salvation isn’t just a question of who is saved and who is damned, who will get to heaven and how, but also how we are swept up into participation in the mystery of God who is Jesus Christ” (Bishop William Willimon, Who Will Be Saved?, p. 3).

Consider further that if the source of salvation is grace, God’s radically free unmerited love poured out for us on the cross of Christ, then a critical element of love is that it cannot be forced. Forced grace is a contradiction in terms. If it is forced, it isn’t grace! We either lean forward and say to God, “thy will be done,” or lean back and hear the Lord whisper in our ears, “all right then, have it your way.” (This phrase is not original to me but I do not recall the original source.) Hell is both real and of our own choice and making. It hinges on the critical decision of whether Jesus is truly the Lord of our life. It is about much more than simply saying the magic words of profession or passing off allegiance to Christ as mere intellectual assent. To be sure grace abounds, but is never cheap nor is it easy.

We have waded too long in the shallow pool of indulgent self-preference. The one who hangs on the cross for us and rises from death in triumph will not be content with a rotting sentimentality spread so thinly over 21st century hedonism. Hung over self-indulgent sentimentality cannot stand the gas ovens of the Nazis or the pain of cancer or the clash of our self-will at the expense of God’s created design and desire. Truth was not crucified on the cross. The Way, the Truth, and Life rose triumphant on Easter morning.

Any true notion of Christian salvation is tied inextricably to Jesus Christ. Again Bishop Willimon is on target. “Salvation is literally inconceivable apart from Christ: ‘There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12). Peter wasn’t speaking to the question of other faiths  – he was testifying before his follow Jews about the Jew, Jesus. . . . If Jesus is, as we believe him to be, as much of God as we ever hope to see, the one who uniquely brought about our at-one-ment with the Father, then we can’t also say that Jesus is only a way, one truth among many, and just another life. Jesus is not simply a great moral example; he is the salvation of God, God’s peculiar, un-substitutable fullness. Jesus’ distinctive way of suffering, sacrificial love, outrageous invitation, and boundary-breaking, government-enraging, relentless seeking – vindicated by surprising, unexpected resurrection – cannot be merged with other means of definitions of salvation” (Bishop William Willimon, Who Will Be Saved?, pp. 93-94).

If we are to reclaim the heart of the Wesleyan Way, we cannot neglect the full development and employment of a biblical doctrine of salvation. Much of the muddled thinking about salvation comes from a confusion of the importance of good works as a part of salvation with a vague understanding of cheap grace. For far too long cheap grace has been stirred with the good works of love, justice and mercy in a manner which as produced the bland gruel of shallow “niceness.”  It is time to reclaim (and preach!) a full doctrine of salvation by Christ alone. And all this done in a manner soaked in humble grace at the foot of the cross and next to the open grave.

Professors Scott Kisker and Kevin Watson in their soon to be published book The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation take time to remind us of this cardinal conviction of early Methodism. “British Methodists summarized the distinctive Wesleyan aspects of salvation with the ‘four alls:’

“All need to be saved.
“All can be saved.
“All can know they are saved.
“All can be saved to the uttermost.”

(Taken from The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation by Scott T. Kisker and Kevin M. Watson, pg. 66 pre-publication copy. Footnote: This summary was developed in the early twentieth century by W. B. Fitzgerald. See W.B. Fitzgerald, The Roots of Methodism (London: The Epworth Press, 1903), 173)

 

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #10 (C)

Amazing Grace!

Few Christian doctrines have overtaken The United Methodist Church as the doctrine of grace.  One could almost argue that the song “Amazing Grace” has become the unofficial anthem of the church. The words ring out:

Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
T’was blind but now I see

T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear
And Grace, my fears relieved
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed
(“Amazing Grace,” Hymn No. 378, verses 1 & 2, The United Methodist Hymnal)

For John Wesley, an understanding of grace was and is always tied to a doctrine of salvation and more explicitly to an understanding of justification. Two of Wesley’s favorite texts for preaching were: 1 Corinthians 1:30 – “It is because of God that you are in Christ Jesus. He became wisdom from God for us. This means that he made us righteous and holy, and he delivered us.” And, Ephesians 2:8-10 – “You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed.  It’s not something you did that you can be proud of.  Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.” Thus Wesley writes in his Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament on Ephesians 2:8, “Grace, without any respect to human worthiness, confers this glorious gift. Faith, with an empty hand, and without any pretense to personal desert, receives the heavenly blessing.” Wesley’s footnote on 1 Corinthians 1:30 reads, “out of His grace and mercy.”

A simple definition of grace might be the radically free and wholly unmerited gift of God’s love and forgiveness. Father Roger Haight, S.J. has written one of the best books I have ever read on the subject (I read it for my doctoral work back in 1983) entitled The Experience and Language of Grace. Tracing the connect of the word from the Latin gratia back to the Greek charis, which is the word the New Testament uses, he writes that the word charis of several Hebrew words which convey “meanings reducible to three main ideas: condescending love, conciliatory compassion and fidelity. As a result,” says Father Haight, “the word grace has the special connotation of everything that pertains to a gift of love; it is totally gratuitous or unmerited and underserved” (Roger Haight, S.J., The Experience and Language of Grace, p. 6).

I love the old acrostic for Grace.
God’s
Riches
At
Christ’s
Expense

The claiming or reclaiming of the Wesleyan Way will always have an understanding of grace tied to a doctrine of salvation at its center. Most of us find it easy and comforting to apply grace to ourselves, our loved ones, and our church. Where we choke is on applying a doctrine of grace to someone we consider obviously underserving. But then that is the Christian dilemma. The claim of the faith, rising out of a proper understanding of the infection we call sin, is that all of us are underserving.

The second place we choke on a doctrine of grace lies in our modern rendering of grace as something cheap or easily given. Grace is, to be sure, radically free but it is never cheap or easy. Our own experience should tell us this much.

The words of the famous Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer offer both a caution and frame for our usage of the great doctrine of grace.

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing.

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. . . .

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins. … In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.  (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, pp. 45-46)

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #3 ©

Being Methodical – Embracing Spiritual Disciplines

The great Christian theologian and spiritual mentor Dallas Willard opens his epic book, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God, with a profoundly insightful tragic story.  He writes: “Recently a pilot was practicing high-speed maneuvers in a jet fighter. She turned the controls for what she thought was a steep ascent – and flew straight into the ground. She was unaware that she had been flying upside down.

“This is a parable of human existence in our time – not exactly that everyone is crashing, though there is enough of that – but most of us as individuals, and world society as a whole, live at high-speed, and often with no clue to whether we are flying upside down or right-side up. Indeed, we are haunted by a strong suspicion that there may be no difference – or at least that it is unknown or irrelevant” (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God, pp. 1-2).

Such phrasing is surely descriptive of our age and time.  We live at a pace of life that is simply unsustainable.  In the midst of our times, bombarded by instant news, assaulted by more input than we can possibly process, we remain committed to being follows of Christ.

This is not a new enterprise.  The quest for faithfulness in confusing and even chaotic times is one that all Christians who have gone before and all who come after us have or will wrestle with. How is that we  – moment by moment, day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year – walk in the way of Christ?  To be sure, we have primary and basic guidance from Holy Scripture.  Consider ….

  • He has told you, human one, what is good and what the Lord requires from you:  to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.  (Micah 6:8)
  • You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. (Luke 10:27)
  • Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. (Matthew 28: 19-20)
  • You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed.  It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. (Ephesians 2:8-10a)

As powerful and strengthening as these biblical admonitions are we need something more.

Ardent conviction and sincere intent alone are not enough.  We need a method, a way of practicing the Christian faith such that walking with Christ becomes our habit, our natural way of living. Years ago Jolynn and I took country western dancing class.  The instructor used to say that we needed to develop “muscle memory” for our dancing.  (Unfortunately my muscles were exceptionally challenged!)

The Wesleyan Way is energized by just such thinking and acting. Wesley looked back at the earliest Christians, examined the faithful saints down through the ages, and appropriated a “methodical” way to be a faithful Christian.  It involved what we call today “spiritual disciplines.”

While the list varies, the spiritual disciplines are at least in part made up of foundational activities.  At a minimum they consist of:

  • Quiet time for contemplation of the Holy Spirit and prayer
  • Searching the Scriptures (as Wesley put it, we might say Bible reading and study)
  • Regular worship including regular participation in Holy Communion
  • Watching over one another in love through small group discipleship (class meeting)
  • Works of love, justice and mercy
  • Giving both financially and of our time

All this and more is, must!, take place in the context of community-  the very Body of Christ called the Church.  If you read my above list carefully, you will notice two things.  First, it is not new, this is already an a clear reflection of the witness of Scripture, the practices of the earliest disciples and each succeeding generation of the faith down through almost 2,000 years of Christian history.  The second thing you will notice is that my list is incomplete.  It needs to be filled out, to be written by each of us in our individual contexts.

No one, absolutely no one, lives a life of faithful discipleship by themselves.  We all live in community with Christ and each other.  Our methodical practices will ultimately be under the influence of the how the Spirit shapes us for the better.

I leave the reader with a comment from Professor Jason Vickers:

In the postmodern West, the church is beset by two problems. First, in many quarters, we have lost confidence in the materials, persons, and practices that the Holy Spirit has given to the church for our healing and our salvation. We have lost confidence in the power of Scriptures and the sacraments to form and to transform our lives. We have lost confidence in the power of spirit-filled preaching and prayer to convict us of our sins and to assure us of our forgiveness. We have lost confidence in the power of the testimony of the saints to guide us into all truth. Put simply, we have lost confidence in the very resources by which the church lives and by which she is a source of the renewal of life and of holiness throughout the world.  (Minding the Good Ground by Jason E. Vickers, pg. 94-95)

If we are to reclaim the Wesleyan Way, we must reclaim the spiritual disciplines in the habits of our living.  This is the path to true holiness (Wesley’s holiness of heart and life) and thus the true path ultimately to deep joy and happiness.  Reclaiming the Wesleyan Way involves hiking on the trail of the life well lived!

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #2 ©

Enthusiasts – God as a Subject

Many of us are aware that the title “Methodist” was originally meant as an insult.  Those called Methodists were considered methodical fanatics in the way they followed Jesus (i.e. through in bible study, prayer, spiritual discipline, evangelistic faith sharing and works of love, justice and mercy, etc.).  Often a more common shorthand reference to them was that they were simply “enthusiasts.”  It was not meant as a compliment!

In the introduction to David Hempton’s marvelous Methodism: Empire of the Spirit, the author recalls an interchange between two great Oxford scholars.  Hugh Price Hughes challenged Mark Pattison, the then distinguished scholar and rector (think Dean) of Lincoln College, Oxford. Pattison rejected Methodism as part of religious thought worthy of consideration.  Pattison considered Methodism as “somewhere near the opposite pole of reasonable religion” (David Hempton, Methodism: Empire of the Spirit, p. 1).  Methodists in Pattison’s vision were “enthusiasts” who should be dismissed by all right thinking “reasonable” Christians/people.

And yet, if we are to reclaim the heart of the Wesleyan Way, we recover the zeal of the original Methodist “enthusiasts.”  They held a passion for Christ and the gospel, for the life of faithfulness and fruitfulness in holiness of heart and life which so burned within them that it shed light on the outside in an often brutal shadowed world.  Indeed so true is this basic element of the original Methodists that some scholars “argue that the explosion of Pentecostalism in the twentieth century … can best be explained as a much-modified continuation of the Methodist holiness tradition”  (Hempton, p. 2).

Famously in “Thoughts Upon Methodism,” John Wesley shared his hopes and fears for the future of the Wesleyan movement with the words: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.” 

All this boisterous enthusiasm is a stretch for someone like myself who came to the Christian faith via the Friends (Quakers) and their preference for dignified silence.  And yet… at the heart of the Wesleyan Way, we are called to be enthusiasts for Jesus.  I can’t help but recall a young new start pastor rising to share in a Path One gathering (The United Methodist Church’s official new church & new faith community planting ministry) who commented, “The Methodist Church was begun by a bunch of college students who were determined to take Jesus seriously.”  There is more than just a small element of truth in his comment.  A bunch of college kids got seriously enthusiastic for Jesus.  While estimates vary today there are something around 35 million plus (I am sure this figure is low, but it is the best I could lay my hands on quickly) Methodists around the world and the many, many more who claim connection to the Wesleyan way of Christianity (probably 250 million!).

The modern sage of American culture Garrison Keillor has remarked, “We make fun of Methodists for their blandness, their excessive calm, their fear of giving offense, their lack of speed, and also for their secret fondness for macaroni and cheese. But nobody sings like them….If you were to ask an audience in New York City, a relatively Methodist-less place, to sing along on the chorus of ‘Michael row your boat ashore’ they would look daggers at you as if you had asked them to strip to their underwear. But if you do this with Methodists, they’d smile and row that boat ashore and up on the beach! And down the road!” (Garrison Keillor on “Those People called Methodists” ).
How then are we to reclaim this heart of the Wesleyan Way for our day?  The young pastor has it right for starters.  We embrace the model of a bunch of college kids who decided to take Jesus seriously.  We follow Jesus in our lives and larger world.  But there is more to this than simply a call to commitment and action.  At its core, the need to reclaim the heart of the Wesleyan Way is theological.

Methodists were “enthusiasts” for Christ because they saw God in action!  God was simply not an object of belief but a subject moving in their lives and the lives of those around them.  Personal transformation by God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit is real.  Social transformation was (and is!) an outgrowth of personal transformation.  It is happening today!  I can still taste the thrill of sitting in a worship service where the pastor opened by asking people if they had experienced any “God sightings” this week.  All kinds of folks from middle school-aged kids to septuagenarian adults stood up and shared!  They were enthusiasts in the original Methodist sense.  The Trinity was real; Jesus was alive; the Holy Spirit was active!  Their lives and community were being transformed by the Lord moving in their midst.

I love the comment offered by Professor Jason Vickers in his book Minding the Good Ground, “… the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost not simply to dwell among us but to dwell within us in such a way that, as Boris Bobrinskoy once put it, ‘we cannot discern the frontier between his presence and our own autonomy’” (Minding the Good Ground by Jason E. Vickers, pg. 77).  We must get over ourselves; our own convictions, causes and campaigns opening ourselves again to the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  This is scary and dangerous stuff.  It is much more than simply academically reclaiming a doctrine of the Holy Spirit (to be sure we must do this much!).  Reclaiming the Wesleyan Way calls us to set aside of cultural “properness” (regardless of where we are on the political, ideological and social spectrum!) and open ourselves to the wild ways of the Holy Spirit!

Regaining an understating of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit as an active subject moving in our lives and worlds is at the very center of reclaiming the heart of the Wesleyan Way.  This will not happen without a re-appropriation of the practice of foundational spiritual disciplines.  But for today, I will pause.  A following blog will offer some reflections on being methodical – embracing the Spiritual Disciplines.

Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #1 ©

Two incidents frame the beginning of a series of blogs I have tentatively entitled “Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way.”  First, an incident that happened a couple of months ago.  Jolynn and I found ourselves in another community worshipping at a large United Methodist Church on Sunday morning.  The preacher opened by stating that he was continuing a series of sermons by John Wesley with additions of his own.  Absentmindedly I didn’t catch what he said at first.  However as the sermon unfolded, I soon realized that he was preaching Wesley’s famous sermon on “Justification by Faith”  (See The Works of John Wesley, Vol.1, Sermon 5, pp. 182-199, Edited by Albert C. Outler). Somewhat edited for length and spliced with a few comments, its essence and even language was straight Wesley.

I take notes when I listen to a sermon (for my own spiritual learning and growth in faith, not in judgment of the preacher!).  About half way through I put my pen down and closed my notepad.  I sat back and looked across the congregation.  There were roughly four hundred people sitting in the sanctuary, and they were in rapt attention.  Literally you could hear a pin drop.  The sense of spiritual hunger and eager learning was palpable.  (Afterwards I checked with Jolynn and she too felt the mood of anticipation and eager learning).

There is a deep longing for the gospel truth which exists within and around this wildly secular culture of ours.  Like those coming in from the desert, we seek the water of life.  Culturally we are a living embodiment of John 4:15.  “The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I will never be thirsty and will never need to come here to draw water!’”

The second incident took place the day before my mother-in-law died.  We knew the end was near and had spent the previous day at the nursing home.  Sunday morning – discouraged, emotionally and spiritually hurting – we went to the local United Methodist Church where Maxine was a member.  (Over some 70 years she had held many positions in the church including 25 years plus as a Sunday School teacher, a leader in the UMW, Chair of the Trustees and a member of the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee.)  We had a soul-deep longing for a word from the Lord; a message of faith that was truly good news, the gospel.  The sermon did not mention God or the Trinity or Jesus Christ/Lord or the Holy Spirit.  The gist of it was that we should all volunteer to help others and if we really wanted to be good we should join the Lions Club.  (Sadly I am not making this up!)

There is a hunger to reclaim the heart of the Wesleyan Way in the chaos of our times; one that is a soul-deep thirsting for a true and living walk with the Lord.  John Wesley once said, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”

Wherever one comes out on the progressive vs traditionalist theological spectrum of modern Methodism in America, the need is for something greater.  We stand with the unnamed woman at well so long ago crying out for the water of life.  This is what the original Wesleyan Way brought to first England and then the world.  Instinctively people recognized in the Wesleyan movement the essence of the Pentecost church.  Wesley’s deep fear has become a painful truth.

“Wesley’s great fear was that the Methodist movement would – in a process that had happened again and again over the centuries – be tamed by the culture until it was nothing more than a docile lapdog,” said the Rev. Dr. Andrew Thompson, a Wesley scholar and pastor of First United Methodist Church in Springdale, Arkansas. “He was afraid that Methodism’s engagement with the culture would dilute it until it was a shell of its former self.”

At its heart our crisis in this day is not about a social issue (however desperately important issues like healthcare, immigration, war, and the like are – and make no mistake they are critically important!).  Today The United Methodist Church wrestles with a much deeper theological crisis.  I recently overheard one of our better pastor’s mutter, “we don’t need more vague Unitarianism.”  How right he is!

Many of us in seminary (especially those my age – 67!) recall reading the famous Christian theologian and ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr (long Professor at Yale Divinity School).  Back in 1937 writing his book The Kingdom of God in America, Professor Niebuhr penned a famous quote.  “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”   (H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America, p. 193) It was a prescient insight offered just before the outbreak of World War II.

It is just as accurate in a time floundering in self-indulgence and slathered with a self-righteous embrace of victimhood.  As I write, the insights of Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: A Nation of Heretics rumbles in the back of my mind.  Near the end of his book he writes, “We are waiting, not for another political savior or television personality, but for a Dominic or a Francis, an Ignatius or a Wesley, a Wilberforce or a Newman, a Bonhoeffer or a Solzhenitsyn.  Only sanctity can justify Christianity’s existence; only sanctity can make the case for faith; only sanctity, or the hope thereof, can ultimately redeem the world”  (Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: A Nation of Heretics, p. 292).

A deep lingering hunger for a better life exists for us all.  We stand by the wells of life hoping against hope.  Longing for a soul deep significance, a redemption which can deliver far more than materialism’s wildest claims, science’s most brilliant insights, and politics’ most raucous triumph.  This is what the Wesleyan Way provided a heart-sick, slum infested, socially desperate politically bankrupt England.  It is what the Wesleyan Way offered to an infant America and what became the comfort and hope of so many settlers pushing west in the “New World.”  It is what the Wesleyan Way has shared across the globe.

I will offer a series of blogs on this subject over the next month and half or so (with periodic interruptions).  Together the Lord God calls us to reclaim the heart of the Wesleyan Way.  We were once called “enthusiasts.”  It is time to claim the title again.

THE COURAGE TO MARCH ©: Part 1

Central Texas Conference Episcopal Address given June 6, 2016 by Bishop J. Michael Lowry

PART I – “A New Thing”

 I am mindful what day today is as I stand to speak to you. This is the day is the 72nd anniversary of what is commonly known as simply “D-Day.”  Historically the reference is to the Allied invasion of Europe on June 6th in 1944 hurling back the forces of evil as represented in the scourge of Nazi Germany and most particularly in the Holocaust.  The horrors of that day, especially on Omaha Beach, have been duly documented and even highlighted by the opening scenes from Saving Private Ryan.  What cannot be doubted from the distance of time and space which history gives us is the role of courage in establishing a new future.  A free Europe and free America and much of the rest of the world’s freedom exists because to their sacrifice.  We are the beneficiaries of their courage and must humbly offer our gratitude.

I start at this grim juncture in no way to offer some misguided glorification of war.  Those who have valiantly served in combat know full well that its horrors are not to be wished on anyone.  Rather I pause to remember on this special anniversary because we too as Christ followers must summon up the courage to march.

Audentes Fortuna Iuvat, the Roman phrase variously translated from Virgil means “fortune (or history) favors the brave.” It is no mistake that biblically often the first word from the Lord is “fear not.” It is the angelic message ringing out to the shepherds in their field on Christmas Eve. “Fear not” is the clarion call of the risen Savior at Easter Sunrise. “Fear not” is the word the Lord speaks to us this day.

The Greeks had a saying: “When Cicero spoke we said, ‘How well he speaks.’ But when Demosthenes spoke we said, ‘Let us march.’”[1] Friends, the risen Christ stands this day and says again to us, let us march! “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”[2]  He commands.  “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”[3]

We live in the fading twilight of Christendom. We know this truth. With some notable exceptions, young people are not flooding into our churches. Public opinion regards religious truth claims falsely as vague matters of private truth.   Large swaths of the American culture have dismissed the Christian faith as an antiquated set of opinions to held by the terminally pious.

While the damn is close to breaking over the fragile unity of “mainline” Methodism, simultaneously something remarkable and remarkably good is taking place. God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit is at work!  Verses 19 and 20 of Isaiah 43 springs to mind.  “Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it?  I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness.”[4]

You will no doubt remember the context of this famous passage.  Israel has been defeated.  The leaders are scattered into exile.  It is hard to imagine life getting worse let alone getting better.  Yet in the darkness before the dawn the Prophet speaks of God doing a new thing.  Do you recall the introductory lines of verses 16 & 17 of Isaiah 43?  “The Lord says—who makes a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and battalion; they will lie down together and will not rise; they will be extinguished, extinguished like a wick.”[5]  Allow me to suggest that something like this is again taking place under the Lord’s presence and power through the Holy Spirit.  We are experiencing a new spring of faithful orthodoxy and congregational vitality bubbling around us.

Please do not misunderstand me.  I think the United Methodist Church as we know it (the phrase “as we know it” is a towering qualifier) is slowly collapsing around us.  This slow motion collapse may take a long time to play out and then again it may hit a tipping point and cascade rapidly downward.  Either way, it will be painful, and cause heartache and much anxiety. But this is not the real story.  The real tale we gather to take note of is referenced in the Isaiah 43:19-20.  “Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it?  I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness.”[6]  The decaying Christendom bureaucracy (which I too, to a very real degree, represent) masks the beginnings of a remarkable rebirth of the Christian faith and church involving a healthy Wesleyan Christian Orthodoxy at the heart of its expression.

Consider some of the antidotal (or narrative) evidence:

  • The Central Texas Conference showed a growth this past year in most categories of congregational vitality. Just this last week going over the April report on the Vital Signs of Congregational Vitality, I noticed that Alliance UMC showed a 27% gain in worship attendance; First Corsicana reported a 37% increase; St. Stephens in Arlington showed a 433% gain in professions of faith; both First Mansfield and Bethel in Waxahachie reported more than a 1,000% increase in professions of faith. There is a continuing rise in mission engagement with the poor both locally and globally. Extravagant Generosity is common. Our Connectional Mission Giving (CMG) or what is mistakenly referred to as “Apportionments” are the highest paid to date in 9 years, and we have paid 100% 8 out of the last 10 years. We think that is the best record in the United States. (With perhaps only the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference doing better.) I could go on but you get the drift.
  • Those pastors who have an orthodox coherent theology are showing far more fruitfulness than those who lean on Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Put bluntly, the churches they pastor are the churches more likely to survive and thrive. [Carefully please note: I am not asserting that this is axiomatically the same as being theologically or politically conservative. Rather it is about an uncompromising gospel orientation that slices across our conventional labels.]
  • Methodist Justice Ministry, an off-shoot of First UMC, Fort Worth led by Rev. Brooks Harrington, is engaging in incredible work for those who are the most vulnerable among us – children. They are living out the great focus area of the church in ministry with the poor. So too is JFON, Justice for Our Neighbors. Their outreach among immigrants includes partnerships with the Texas Methodist Foundation and churches all across the Conference. You will be hearing shortly about the exciting launch of Project Transformation in the Central Texas Conference which combines ministry with the poor and leadership development. Project Transformation reaches out to connect children in need with college students in witness and service to churches in mission.
  • We are seeing signs of witness and creative evangelistic outreach in combination with radical hostility. Hamilton UMC has taken a food pantry and partnered with the local extension agent to offer a cooking class to those they serve in the food pantry. Members also take the class. Together, they share their faith in a non-pressured way at a common meal. New people have joined the church and joined the faith through this simple act of combining caring with an explicit witness. Olney UMC has started a Tuesday Night Boys for young post-high school men who don’t go to college. They teach each other life skills and share the faith in a natural setting. It has already brought 10 new young men into their faith community and faith in Christ.
  • We are beginning to see the results of strong reinvestment in Campus Ministry through our Wesley Foundations, which is resulting in a new lay and clergy leadership for the church.
  • The Vital Leadership Academy is developing a new generation of lay leaders built on in-depth discipleship growth.
  • The gnawing spiritual hunger which surrounds us (even engulfs us) is finding its thirst quenched at the fount of orthodox theology; especially orthodox Wesleyan theology. The fashionable Protestant progressivism of American high culture increasingly looks like an emperor with no clothes. Opportunities for in-depth spiritual formation and biblical growth exist in every (let me emphasize!) every church! People are hungry. Pastors, lay leaders, feed them!
  • The rise in interest for deep spiritual formation fed by groups like the new monastic movement (which is in part located within the Central Texas Conference, The Missional Wisdom Foundation, Renovare, the Apprentice Institute, and the works of Dallas Willard & Richard Rohr among many others offer a real sign of the inherent attraction of embracing once again a core Christologically centered and genuinely Trinitarian expression of the Christian faith embraced within the shell of modern United Methodism. (This includes some of those who at best only flirt with orthodoxy.)
  • The hunger and growth of interest in authentic seeking after God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – as evidence by the popularity of Kevin Watson’s The Class Meeting, the continuing works of Eugene Peterson, and The Five Day Upper Room Academy for Spirit Formation (led in our Conference by Dr. Bob Holloway, Dean of the Cabinet) offer evidence of the reemergence of interest in deep discipleship. This is a nascent struggling movement but I submit that the careful observer can see a new budding of a deeply faithful expression of orthodox Christianity.[7] It is a natural outgrowth of the spiritual hunger around us and of our growing desire to make disciples of Jesus Christ. [Incidentally Dr. Watson will be our Conference teacher next year.]
  • All across the Conference, we are increasingly aware that attempts to split doctrine and practice (or orthodoxy and orthopraxy) are inherently destructive. When orthopraxy is split off from a deep connection to orthodoxy, the Christian faith is cut off from its life giving roots. The resultant expression of Christianity is emaciated and inevitably entering a death spiral. When orthopraxy is neglected then orthodoxy is a dead faith signifying nothing and essentially worthless. Remember the admonition of James, “Do you need to be shown that faith without actions has no value at all?”[8] The two must go together!
  • One kind of church is fading, the declining old mainline with its renewed emphasis on missional outreach largely divorced from an explicit gospel witness (which hence comes across as an advanced version of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism). The other kind is an orthodox vibrant expression of the church lived out in outwardly focused orthopraxy; which can’t help but reach across ethnic and class lines. For an example, just catch the vibrancy of Harvest UMC, One Fellowship UMC in Waco, Rockbridge UMC on our southern border, Disciple Church (an evolution of the 7th Street experiment which is now a part of First Fort Worth) and Whites Chapel’s work with Path 1 out of Discipleship Ministries. All of them in various ways are combinations of both new churches and transforming partnerships with existing churches. We are seeing emerging churches passionately outwardly focused in ways that are evangelistically as well as missionally engaged with the growing non-Christian environment.

I could go on but I trust you follow my argument.  God is never left without witnesses.  There are signs of new life all around us.  What is both disturbing and hopeful is that this new life struggles to fit into the existing United Methodist Church culture.  In an April report on Congregational Vitality, the Central Texas Conference has increased to 29% in the number of vital congregations in the period from 2010 through 2014 – a 7% increase.  This is an excellent report but it is not good enough.  Why not a four year goal to have over 50% of our congregations listed as vital congregations?  (Incidentally that would make us the highest in the nation by a large margin.)  Christ as head of the church calls for our best.  The Savior and Lord deserves our best.  In Oswald Chambers inimitable phrase, “My[Our] Utmost for His Highest!”

 

[1]               https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Demosthenes
[2]               Acts 1:8
[3]               Matthew 28:19-20
[4]               Isaiah 43:19-20
[5]               Isaiah 43:16-17
[6]               Isaiah 43:19-20
[7]              see Deep Church Rising: The Third Schism and the Recovery of Christian Orthodoxy by Andrew G. Walker and Robin A. Parry
[8]               James 2:20

The Force at Skellig Michael ©

I first caught sight of Skellig Michael while on vacation in Ireland last summer. On a long dream of trip (over 10 years in gestation) with dear friends, we were driving the beautiful Ring of Kerry in Southwestern Ireland.  The costal scenery 04island wholewas rugged, evoking fantasies of wild Ireland.

When I last saw Skellig Michael (a couple of weeks ago), I was watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Without spoiling the movie for those who haven’t seen it, the movie closes with a dramatic confrontation with Luke Skywalker on the austere crags of Skellig Michael.  The Jedi “Force” struggles towards an awakening to combat the forces of evil.

Something similar took place for real on Skellig Michael. Saint Patrick began his epic missionary evangelism in the second half of the 5th century. As the country wrestled with the truth of the Christian faith, other Christ followers stepped forward.  One of those was the famous teach named Finnian.  “At Clonard Finnian built a little cell and a church of clay and wattle, and entered on a life of study, mortification, and prayer. The fame of his learning and sanctity soon spread, and scholars of all ages flocked from every side to his monastic retreat. Finnian established a monastery modeled on the practices of Welsh monasteries, and based on the traditions of the Desert Fathers and the study of Scripture. The rule of Clonard was known for its strictness and asceticism”  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finnian_of_Clonard). He was a great teacher of the Christian Faith who educated people such as Saint Columba of Iona fame.  Later Finnian moved to found the monastery at Skellig Michael as a place of retreat and learning, believed to be in the 6th century. There remained a functioning monastery on Skellig Michael until the 12th or 13th century, a period of roughly 600+ years.

So why does all this ancient history matter? It matters because there is a witness offered by the courageous monks of Skellig Michael that would inform and guide us in our day. The real force was awakened on Skellig Michael and didn’t involve Jedi Knights.  It involved people who stood up and stood out for Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  They did so in an environment where faith and values were contested between pagan Druidic Ireland (with all its well documented cruelty) and the emerging Christian Faith.  We need to do the same today.09crosses

Secondly, the true force of Skellig Michael — Jesus Christ — led to a great awakening in Ireland. Even with all its flaws, Christian Ireland has been a beacon of hope and learning in our darkened world.  Don’t take my word for it.  Read Thomas Cahill’s marvelous little book How the Irish Saved Civilization.

Third, the hardship and the sacrifice of the monks call us to stand up for Christ in our world today. The days of nominal Christianity are a waning force.  This is actually a good thing.  The monks point us to a hopeful inspired future because the force, the real force is with us!

Musing on Run ©

I returned a week ago from a tremendous learning and sharing ministry in the Philippines. Together with Bishops John Schol, Rudy Juan, Ciriaco Franscisco, and Peter Torio, I was privileged to share in the COB Bright Spots Project on building vital congregations. Such travels remind me of how tempting it is to view our ministry in parochial terms. It is easy to boil the Christian faith and its witness down to our particular church, city, state, or nation. When we pause to think and pray, we are all reminded that the opposite is true. Mr. Wesley had it exactly right when he said, “the world is my parish!”

By way of example, a recent story crossed my desk about the tremendous ministry we participate in through Africa University. Bishop Marcus Matthews (Resident Bishop of the Baltimore Washington Episcopal Area and Vice-Chair of the African University Board of Directors) writes:

“United Methodist-related Africa University plays a critical role in the lives of people like Claudine Migisha Muhoza of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). When rebel armies violently tore through her village, killing her parents and leaving her and her five siblings to fend for themselves, she was six-years-old. She suddenly found herself forced into the role of caregiver to her younger brothers and sisters.

Congolese by nationality, 22-year-old Muhoza was born in Goma, DRC. Despite her horrendous ordeal of losing her parents, she and her siblings rallied. She continued with her schooling, which ultimately led her to Africa University where she is currently studying psychology. 

With more than 6,200 graduates and offering degrees in six faculties of learning, plus programs in peace, leadership and governance, Africa University is making – and will continue to make – a difference through committed, conscientious and caring students.

In 2014, your support of the Africa University Fund (AUF) helped increased giving by more than two percent! That is something to celebrate! Your annual conference played an important role in this accomplishment because it invested 100 percent in its Africa University apportionment in 2014. We continue to celebrate your hard work to accomplish this!

Your annual conference’s ongoing support is essential to future leaders across the continent of Africa. Thank you! I encourage you to keep up the excellent work.

Please share Muhoza’s story, along with the Africa University Fund video, when you invite congregations to give their Africa University Fund apportionment in full. If you need additional resources and information, please encourage them to download resources from the AUF pastor and leader kit or visit Africa University Development website. We want to help YOU help our African sisters and brothers. Thank you!”

Tomorrow I leave for the second part of my renewal leave on a two week trip through Educational Opportunities following parts of the Apostle Paul’s 3 and 4th missionary journeys. Our first stop will be in Istanbul (the ancient city of Constantinople). The Nicene Creed, which we routinely (and rightly!) recite in our worship services, was written in what was essentially a suburb of Constantinople. Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom,” in honor of the second person of the holy trinity, the word made flesh, the wisdom from God – Jesus Christ) was once, for almost 1,000 years, the greatest church of Christianity. For her pulpit some to the great early leaders of the Christian faith preached the gospel (notably St. John Chrysostom). Today after a time used as a Mosque, it is now a museum.

It is a lifelong dream of mine to see this sacred site. As I prepare to leave, I am reminded of a different quote from a different person and time period. “Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be ‘tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine’ [Ephesians 4:14], seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s ego and desires.

“We however, have a different goal: the Son of God, the true man. He is the measure of true humanism. An “adult” faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature, adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceit from truth.” (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI)

As we set sail on the “Adventures of Paul” I hope to report and being reminded again of how wide – literally world-spanning – the Christian faith is. I pray that once again, each and every day, I/we might be yoked with Christ, rooted in a deep friendship with our Lord.

New Room Report

For the last two and a half days I have been in Franklin, Tennessee attending the New Room Conference. I was warned not to go. I was told that the New Room Conference was a gathering to plan the schism of the United Methodist Church over the issue of LGBT marriage and ordination. I suppose such rumors came about because the New Room talks about building a new network of Wesleyan Christians.

The notion that this is some schismatic Wesleyan-United Methodist group couldn’t be farther from the truth. There has been no talk about leaving the United Methodist Church from any of the Conference speakers. New Room has used explicit language about a new annual conference. But such talk about a conference is not structural.

The New Room Conference is about a global Wesleyan movement. It is an effort about connecting Wesleyan Christians from all over. In their own words, “it’s a decisively, unapologetically, creatively, Wesleyan gathering.” Yesterday I sat next a retired University President who is (as he put it) “a salvationist,” by which he meant a part of the Salvation Army. We heard a lecture from the Presiding Elder (translate Bishop) of the Wesleyan Church (Jo Anne Lyon). Her moving address connected a Wesleyan understanding of sanctification with ministry among those who have been maimed and mutilated by extremist in Syrian refugee camps. [The official from the Wesleyan Church who introduced her commented that some people work for the “man” but they work for the woman and are proud of it!]

If there is a theme, it is about the recovery of a full Wesleyan understanding of sanctification with a large (very large) dose of movement (work) of the Holy Spirit. These folks are deeply serious about genuine discipleship and deep allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord. The focus is worldwide and not just a North American-centric vision.

Dr. Stanley John gave an impassioned address on the rise of immigrant churches in North America and the changing face of American Christianity. [“Stanley John is a member of the Indian diaspora born and raised in Kuwait. He serves as the director of the Alliance Graduate School of Missions and Assistant Professor of Intercultural Studies at the Alliance Theological Seminary of Nyack College in Nyack, New York.”] There is a great emphasis on church planting and evangelism that is yoked with sanctification in the best Wesleyan sense. Mike Breen, leader of the 3DM, led a workshop I attended that challenged us to consider how we move beyond mere cultural Christianity. Lisa Yebuah, Pastor of Inviting Ministries at Edenton Street United Methodist Church in Raleigh, NC, and Andrew Forrest, Pastor of Munger Place UMC in Dallas, both gave exciting illuminating talks. Kevin Watson, Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler, gave an excellent address on the role of class and band meeting (similar to an address he gave to the Council of Bishops in Oklahoma last year). I could go on but hopefully you have received a taste of what for me has been a heartwarming and wonderfully encouraging conference.

The original purpose of an annual conference meeting was to investigate what to teach and how to teach and not about running an institution. This conference (spelled with a small “c”) is focused on the original purpose and not a political gathering. I hope to go to next year’s conference, time permitting.

As I closed this blog, I would be remiss if I did not note the recurrence of prayer for and conversation about the persecution of Christians. Persecution is a present reality in a number of places around the world. We tend to think of the Middle East and ISIS but the struggle is far wider. One report from India was particularly chilling. Amid the reality of persecution there is a wonderful converting ministry which is a work – one of the Holy Spirit offering love in the place of hate. I ask you to join with me in prayer for all those suffering for the faith and for those causing the suffering. May Christ be known! May our discipleship grow in both sanctification (personal and social holiness in heart and life) and grace-filled love for all people!

Human Sexuality Statement from the Council of Bishops

BishopCrest (4)The following statement was adopted unanimously by the Council of Bishops in the afternoon executive session on November 7, 2014:

As bishops of The United Methodist Church, our hearts break because of the divisions that exist within the church.  We have been in constant prayer and conversation and affirm our consecration vow “to guard the faith, to seek the unity and to exercise the discipline of the whole church.” We recognize that we are one church in a variety of contexts around the world and that bishops and the church are not of one mind about human sexuality. Despite our differences, we are united in our commitment to be in ministry for and with all people.  We are also united in our resolve to lead the church together to fulfill its mandate—to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. As we do so, we call on all United Methodists to pray for us and for one another.

 

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